Join Together chats with David Sheff, author of the new book, Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, to discuss his exploration into the science, prevention and treatment of addiction. In 2008, Sheff’s New York Times bestselling memoir, Beautiful Boy, detailed his son Nic’s descent into methamphetamine addiction and provided a firsthand parent’s perspective on teenage addiction.
Many of our readers will fondly remember your memoir of your son Nic’s addiction. How is Clean different, or similar, to Beautiful Boy?
David Sheff: Beautiful Boy was the story of my family. Anyone who has a child or other loved one who’s addicted knows the hell we endured. Not only are we terrified and horrified by what’s happening to a person we cherish, but we’re overwhelmed. We don’t sleep, can barely function. Sometimes I couldn’t function. My wife and I did our best to be present for our other children, but it was traumatic for them, too. My daughter Daisy, when she was in 7th or 8th grade, was asked to write a short biography of her family. She wrote about the terrible times when her brother was using, and how her “pillar parents crumbed.” And we did.
At the time we went through this, at first I kept it a secret. I was confused, but also ashamed. I thought, what will people think of me that my son is an addict? What will they think of him? But after Beautiful Boy was published, I learned that openness is a great relief. I realized that we weren’t alone. In fact, I realized that there are millions of us—millions of addicts and millions of family members and friends who love them that are affected/effected. I also realized how lucky we were. After multi-treatment programs when we were hopeful, and then multiple relapses, when we were once again terrorized and terrified, Nic was doing great—now he’s been sober for 5 years. But I met so many people, and heard from so many more, whose kids didn’t make it. We’d been lucky. People were failed by the treatment system. They were failed by the prevention system. At the time, I’d planned to go back to write a business book I’d begun earlier, but I realized that I couldn’t. There is too much suffering, too many deaths. So I went forward to learn what I could about the science of addiction—what’s known, what isn’t known. What works preventing and treating addiction and what doesn’t. And what needs to be done to change the current system. The result is Clean.
What surprised you most as you researched for this book?
Sheff: I guess the most surprising was the wide gap between what’s known to be effective treating addicts and how little it’s used. That is, this disease is treatable, but we’re just not treating it. I was also surprised when I finally figured out how much the stigma is the cause of so many problems with addiction prevention and treatment. There’s no judgment when people get other diseases, but we continue to think of addicts, and treat them, as if they’re selfish, immoral—bad people. We think of kids who use drugs, we think of them as bad kids. But these aren’t bad kids, they’re our kids. Addicts aren’t dissolute or weak willed, they’re ill.
You are first a journalist. What grade would you give the media for their reporting/portrayal of addiction, and why?
Sheff: Most media portrayals of addiction are simplistic and feed the dangerous, and inaccurate, stereotypes. However, I see signs that this is changing. More journalists are writing about addiction as a medical problem. There is good coverage of breakthroughs in treatment. This shift is critical, because the stigma disappears only when people are educated—when they understand that addiction is a disease, and when they understand that it’s not a disease of the “other” – people still think it could never happen to them and their families – but no one is immune. It’s also critical, because it shows people who may have given up that treatment can work.
For a disease that impacts so many families in the United States, addiction gets surprisingly little attention from policy makers. How can we change that?
Sheff: I envision a grassroots campaign of people who no longer will accept the silence about addiction. It’s America’s number one tragedy, not only effecting addicts and their families, but every other problem you can name: the economy, criminal justice system, overburdened emergency rooms. It costs America’s companies over $200 billion a year in lost productivity. Unfortunately, it seems that only people who have experience with addiction understand the severity of the problem. We must educate everyone, including our legislators. But there’s a confluence of forces that suggest change. People are tired of hiding, tired of being ignored. There are organizations in many American cities that are working on this. Some policymakers and people of influence are taking this on. President Clinton has launched an Initiative to work on drug problems among college-age kids. Some business leaders are calling for an end to the war on drugs—Richard Branson, George Soros. Former politicians like Jocelyn Elders, Patrick Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter. We must send letters, circulate petitions, have marches. Politicians respond to numbers. We must get hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of people to call for change.
To find out what else David Sheff shared with Join Together, read Part 2 of his interview.
Visit Amazon.com to read an excerpt and purchase a copy of Clean.